Evolution - Uncharted


By Paul Crenshaw

It is 17,000 light years to the Galapagos Islands, and over 600 years since the HMS Beagle—after which our ship is named—landed there. Over half a millennia since Darwin wrote his Origin of the Species and changed the way we look at the evolution of life. Sitting here, looking down the cliffs at the Beagle—so aptly named as to be something of a joke, were the situation not so dire—I understand what Darwin must have felt as it dawned on him how life grew and grew and grew, always changing, as he saw in the short hops to tiny islands the differing species and formulated his theories on the beginning of life and all the subsequent steps that life must have taken to reach the forms he saw. 

It is a marvel to me, even now. The crew, of course, do not share my enthusiasm—fear tends to cut enthusiasm short. They scuttle around the ship, Craton and Captain Harris screaming repair orders and the others following them, working desperately. While they work, I write, preserving our history for posterity, just in case. But, like me, the crew fix formulas in their heads, formulas that involve time. Our formulas are different, but they meet at the same destination, at the same time, wondering which event will arrive first. 

Below us, the shadows of the low trees stretch long. The sun is setting in the west. Already the first faint calls reach out from the trees, and the men work harder, alert as night comes on. We have been here less than 72 hours. Even Darwin would have been surprised by that short length of time. 

We know now what will happen when night falls again. We do not fool ourselves. One thing we’ve learned in the vast stretches of space is that delusions—even hopeful ones—rarely hold any value. So we work, and we try not to watch the sun streaking toward the far horizon and the shadows gathering strength. We work on the ship, and hope she can get off the ground. 

In the distance, the lowering sun catches our ship, turns it to fire. Beside our Beagle is the smaller Albatross, whose faint signal we followed here. Like our Beagle, its cabins are smashed, its engines torn by the violent descent into the planet’s atmosphere. A hundred years it must have lain here, lost in the vast reaches of space. The same thing that happened to us must have happened to her: mechanical failure in the magnetic planet winds, navigation and control lost in the fall. 

We know they survived the crash. We had to piece together the rest. They were not carrying a ship’s historian to record their ending, but the evidence is there for all to see. The doors to the ship were barricaded. Spent ammo littered the cabin. They must have been taken unawares, as we were. Only a few of them made it to the cliffs where I sit now. We do wonder though if they understood their final end. Did they unravel the mysteries of this planet before those same mysteries took their lives? But they must have learned something, for Craton, the Beagle’s chief engineer, guesses the Albatross was hovering a few feet off the ground. They must have thought they were safe.   

And the name they gave this planet—scrawled in a dozen places on old notebooks in their quarters, along with sketches of the changing fauna—also tells us they guessed something of that mystery in the end. 

We found them by chance. Or perhaps not, since it seems, looking at the world from Darwin’s viewpoint, that nothing happens by chance. I do not mean the religious theory that our lives are predetermined, only that scientific law governs the world around us. 

Although here those scientific laws act differently. 

Our mission was to explore. Like Darwin on his Beagle we were learning, making short hops from planet to planet, taking notes and cataloguing plant and animal species. Already we had filled our storage space with our specimens, had taken miles and miles of notes on data wire, more records than we could study in a lifetime. We were like children, marveling at the new worlds around us. This system we found has a dozen planets—I can see three of them in the sky above us even now—and at least four of them hold life. The sun is a supergiant, and the planets themselves 5 to 10 times the size of Earth. 

The first planet was mostly water, broken by monolithic volcanoes rising from the violent seas. The water around the volcanoes was warm, and the bacteria that grew in the water would have occupied us for years had not the volcanoes begun rumbling deep in their bowels and a fiery ash shot from their mouths. 

The next planet was a primordial jungle. We flew for hundreds of miles along mountain ranges, over the wasted beds of ancient rivers. And then, crossing the horizon toward the southern sector of the planet, found forests so alien we could not sleep. Captain Harris put us down and we wandered through trees larger than the ancient pyramids of Earth, higher than the buildings of the great cities of Mars. Across the forests were vast plains and beyond that oceans tinted red in the sunlight, rivers running like blood through our dreams. The creatures were like nothing we had seen before, like nothing we had imagined. It was for this we had studied the life sciences—or life histories, in my case—had learned space navigation, had fitted the ceilings of our rooms as children with lights in the form of galaxies and constellations and spent many sleepless hours staring at them, wondering what walked in the margins of space.

We spent a week on the water planet, as we had named it, and close to three months on Planet Two—we  had not yet decided on scientific or political names for the planets, and I fear now we never will.

We had decided to return to Earth with our finds when we detected the Albatross, a faint signal still emanating from its long dead systems. Approaching the planet, it was easy to see why the Albatross and crew had come here. Of all the planets in the system, it seemed most like Earth. From high above the planet we could see oceans and mountains, deserts and polar caps. It was the smallest of the planets, closest to Earth’s size. It seemed the most likely to hold intelligent life. We had seen bacteria on the water planet and beasts of all kind on Planet Two, but no cities, no villages, no caves with paintings on the walls from which humans might eventually emerge. We all crowded into the cabin as we descended, listening to the faint signal and watching the planet draw nearer, and we thought we might have found that sentient life. 

Even now, I am not certain we haven’t. Intelligence takes different forms. Suppose life itself is intelligent, not the creatures that hold life, but life as a meta-physical entity, a vast shape that looks over all its creatures, bids them well, pushes them along toward some unknowable goal. Is life itself a form of god? The crew will not entertain my theories on this front. I cannot say that I blame them. For if it is true, then God is a cruel and heartless creature. 

The ship started rocking as soon as we hit the atmosphere. There is a strong polar shift here, and perhaps a planet core made of metals with which we are not familiar. 

Whatever reason, we lost control, much like the Albatross had a hundred years before us. But technology has advanced in a hundred years, and though we plummeted much faster than any of us would have liked, our safety systems slowed us, leveled us out We were crashing, but slowly. We watched the planet grow nearer through the viewscreen. We drew lines in the air to indicate geological features. We pointed out the terrain, the great rivers, the deep series of lakes, the mountain chains. 

When we descended through a thin band of clouds we could see a low forest. Craton and Captain Harris were navigating manually. We saw the Albatross. We could tell it was broken. It had landed near the edge of the great forest of low trees. To the right above it were cliffs, and above the cliffs a long smooth plain running to the horizon. 

Harris brought us down next to the Albatross. We paused only to check the atmosphere outside—breathable—and grab a few wire guns. Already we had seen the cliffs and wondered if perhaps there were people like the Anasazi from ancient Earth living in them. Or perhaps on the plains there were tribes of horsemen and hunters, or in the forests ancient cities of stone. 

Outside, the weather reminded us of autumn on Earth, when the leaves first start filtering down toward the forest floor, and the nights are cool and the stars spin in the heavens. It was late afternoon, and we wandered through the deepening shadows lost in the mystery of discovery. Perhaps we should have inspected the Albatross first. It might have changed our fate. But we could see she had been here for some time, there had been no response to our repeated calls, and, inebriated by the unknown before us, we saved her for later. 

In the sky above us were planets, and stars that did not match the patterns we knew. The grass stood waist-high, golden-yellow. Ripples ran through it in the slight wind. The trees in the forest were not much taller than the grass, multiple trunks that rose to a height of perhaps five feet and then folded back down and ran along the ground. Already our biologists were taking leaf and bark samples, scribbling notes. 

We knew the ship was damaged, but it seemed a thing to worry about later. Here, we had a new world before us. The leaves of the trees were a deep purple. The bark was almost silver. It was strange to be able to stare over the top of a vast forest. We could see, the taller among us anyway, to the far horizon, the purple-silver trees stretching as far to the west as the yellow plain did to the east. 

To the south were the cliffs. Kelm and Jans and a few others had already made for the cliffs and stood at the base, craning their necks up. There were small lizards in the rocks, and a species of blood-red scorpion, but no caves carved out of the cliff face. 

Still, Kelm and Jans started climbing. I drifted over with them. I have to say I was more interested in finding sentient creatures here than in bark and leaf samples. All the worlds we have explored, all the planets in the distances of space, and nothing, yet, other than our tiny planet where we first crawled out of the ocean. 

The day was moving on by this point. Craton and Harris were still inspecting the ship, trying to ascertain the damage. The biologists had disappeared into the forest, still taking samples and scribbling notes. 

Kelm found the first skeleton. We knew immediately where it had come from, for the ragged bones, sun-bleached and wind-scoured, held scraps of uniform, and we could make out the insignia easily enough: Earth Exploration Army. And, smaller, what must have been the Albatross’ sigil. 

There were others, perhaps a dozen, on the cliff, twenty feet off the ground. Kelm drew his wire gun, knowing something violent had happened to them. Jans, who doubles as medic, pointed out snapped limbs and shredded bone. 

I thought then of the history of exploration, for that is my job. I am trained a scientist—we all are—but over the years the papers I presented leaned more toward the history of exploration, and my studies went in that direction, from the reed boats of the Mediterranean to Chinese junks to the dragon ships of the Vikings. The Spanish conquistadors swarming over the New World. The moon landing in the late 20th. The first human expedition to Mars. To Saturn. To the planets of Alpha Centauri and finally unto the deep reaches of space. 

All of those men must have felt the fear of the unknown. When Cortes saw the cities of Tenochtitlan did he feel the same fear? And Darwin—did he think there might be creatures in the islands so vast and primordial as to swallow them all with no trace? 

The historian, after all, fears the end of history.  

We hurried back to the Beagle and told the captain, who sent us to the Albatross. I don’t think the captain gave it much thought, preoccupied as he was with fixing the ship. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. 

There were bodies strewn everywhere inside the Albatross. We could see the doors had been barricaded. There were long claw marks on the doors, and rents in the metal made of something sharp hammering. There was spent ammo everywhere inside. Kelm went back for Craton, and Craton, annoyed at being taken away from the Beagle’s repairs, stomped over. Inside the Albatross he lost the annoyed look. The ship still had enough energy to send out the faint signal the crew must have sent when whatever had attacked them had come, but Craton couldn’t figure out why she had been hovering. 

“Why would a broken ship spend energy to simply hover?” he said, and went out chewing his lip. 

We found the notes not long after that, notes written by men long dead to their wives and children, notes I hold in my pack now, watching the shadows grow too long and night come again, a night of which I do not know if I will live to see the end. Other notes told of creatures besieging them, and even a few drawings, but we did not get much of a look before we heard the first screams from the forest. 

Outside, night had come. The shadows had lengthened together as the sun had fallen over the rim of the world. 

And the things in the forest had awoken. 

We stumbled out the door of the Albatross about the time Krick came screaming out of the forest with the creatures on him. They were white and red, with yellow beaks. They looked like pictures of the dodo, that long extinct creature from Earth: short, with fat bodies and stubby legs and a thick, sharp beak. 

One of them had its beak dug into Krick’s right calf. Another in his thigh. Still another had several of Krick’s fingers hooked in its beak and we could see the blood running down his hand. 

Kelm drew his stun club and charged, with Jans right behind him. They beat the birds off Krick, though he lost a few fingers and a pound of flesh before he was freed. He was in shock. I took him in both arms and herded him back toward the ship. Captain Harris and the rest of the engineer crew had come out with the first scream, and we all witnessed the second attack, when Gains burst out of the forest in a swirl of feathers and screams. 

One of them had dug into Gains’ neck, another in his stomach. He crumpled two steps out of the forest and—I will never forget this, until that mortal coil a long-lost writer spoke of slips from me—the birds ripped into his flesh, tilting their heads back to throw the bloody meat that used to be Gains down their throats. I suppose I was in some sort of shock as well, standing there in horror as the first wire guns ripped past me and more of the biologists came screaming from the forest. There were even a few, the taller ones, whom we could see over the tops of the trees, thrashing toward the ship like some creature out of nightmare, the birds crawling over them.

Kelms’ men had their stun guns and wires out, and we retreated back to the ship and sealed the door. Immediately we could hear the birds ripping into the metal door with their claws and slamming it like hammers with their beaks, until Craton understood why the Albatross had been hovering. 

“They can’t fly,” he said, for indeed we had seen no wings, only stubs of the vestigial sort. He went down into the bowels of the ship to divert energy to the hover system. A minute later we felt the ship rise, and the screech of bird and rending metal fell away. There was something in the back of my mind I could not put a finger on, but then, happy to be free of the birds’ calls—for it was a sound I cannot describe, somewhere between the freight trains of ancient earth and the piercing shriek of a woman hearing her child has died—I did not linger with the thought. Perhaps I should have. 

It was a long night. Gains was dead. Krick had been sent to medical and patched up, but he’d lost three fingers on his right hand and his gait would never be the same. Several of the biologists—men whom I did not know closely but felt their loss just the same, for we all are one on a ship—had died, and several others were wounded. Craton flustered around the ship, running figures in his head, watching the ship’s computers, wondering how long we could hover. From looking at his face, we knew the news was not good. 

We discerned the birds were nocturnal from the Albatross’ notes. What we could not discern was their demeanor. We knew they were carnivorous, flightless, aggressive. But if I somehow live through this night and make it back to Earth, if I live to be two centuries old, or two hundred centuries, I will not forget that night that we stood at the portal windows of the ship and looked out. The moons of this planet are strong, and the light they threw down on us from the heavens more than ample. It was a silvery light, not that different from our own Earth. 

In it, sitting in silence staring up at the ship, were the birds. Just sitting, and watching. Occasionally a row would break out among them, and one bird would tear another to pieces. Then they would return to watching us. 

“They’re waiting,” Captain Harris said. “I’ll be damned to the darkest depths of hell, they are waiting.”

We did not know then how apt his words were. 

When I could tear myself away from the window and the spectacle of the waiting birds, I went through the Albatross’ notes. I read about the ship’s energy giving out close to morning and the ship settling to the ground, how the birds battered and ripped at the doors until they got in, and the crew retreated deeper and deeper into the ship, killing what birds they could, but mainly fleeing, sealing doors behind them that the birds would tear through, until morning came and the nocturnal birds returned to their nests somewhere in the trees. The ship could not hover another night, so those who still lived headed for the cliffs, where the sharp verticals of the cliff face might protect them from the flightless birds.  

The notes do not say what happened to them there. We did not know either, though we found their remains, torn and broken, along with a few packs and personal effects. The only clues we had I found in the strange drawings of the birds by a man named Cillit, a private from the Earth Exploration Army, who was one of the last alive from the Albatross’ crew.  

But even with the drawings in hand it would be some time before I understood what Cillit was trying to tell me, across the length of time, what the crew of the Albatross had been trying to warn us of with the name they gave this planet. 

Our first night was much the same as theirs. Morning came, and the birds returned to the woods. We could not hover another night, and, reading the Albatross’ notes, we knew the birds would be back, that their beaks were hard as titanium, their claws sharp as diamonds. They would get in. 

So, in the first light of the sun, red-eyed and exhausted—for none of us had been able to sleep, despite Captain Harris’ orders to rest—we began moving our stores to the cliffs. Craton thought he could fix the ship at least enough to get us out of the planet’s atmosphere and into space, and from there we could, perhaps, initiate repairs to make the jump home. 

“Three days,”  he told Captain Harris. “Give me three days.”

We set up camp in the cliffs. Kelm and Jans detailed men to watch the ship, in case the birds came back in the day, but we were certain they would not. There was something so unnatural about their night’s vigil, something so foreign as to be impossible to understand. We knew they would be back that night, and we knew they would sit at the foot of the cliffs and watch us, waiting. 

We did not know what they were waiting for. 

Some of the crew, seeing the bones of the Albatross’ crew in the cliffs, were afraid that something else roamed the planet, but we had our stun guns and our wires, and, after seeing the birds rip into Gains and Krick and the others, the way they sat silent through the night, the fear of another threat lurking here did not scare many of us. There was already enough to be scared of.  We had taken great pains to remove any path up the cliffs they might follow, smoothing out the cliff face with our wire guns, destroying any discernible route the creatures might take. We felt secure. 

Craton and his crew worked on the ship all day. We watched the sun march across the sky, our eyes shifting from the ship to the forest. Three days, Craton had said. Surely we could last that long. 

I hesitate to tell that I slept during the day. Captain Harris had set me, as ship’s historian, to decipher what I could from the Albatross’ notes, but it had been a long and terrible night and sometime in the warm afternoon my eyes slipped closed.  

My dreams were of terrible things I will not relate, except to say that Cortes, that Leif Ericson, that Neil Armstrong, would not be remembered today had my dreams come true and the native inhabitants of the lands they explored risen up as they did in my sleep.  

When I woke, the shadows had almost joined. Craton and the others were climbing the cliffs with thrown ropes, Captain Harris swearing good-naturedly—it was always his wont to try to cheer the men—that by-God Craton had damned near fixed the damned ship in one day and he would by-God get us out of here the next. If I had not fallen asleep, had concentrated a little more on the planet’s name, on the strange drawings of the birds Cillit had left, I might have begged Craton to go back and work through the night. 

Instead, the shadows joined. We began to hear the birds’ cries from the forest, and then, in the light of the silver moons, they came streaming out. They waddled to the foot of the cliff, looking a bit like overgrown ducks, like creatures we could reach down and pet. They reached the foot of the cliff and craned their necks up toward us. They settled down to wait. 

It was then I knew why they were waiting, for in the silver light, I could see a thing that had not been there previously. 

I spent the night flipping through Cillit’s drawings, running time equations through my head. Some of the men fired at the birds, spraying the thin wire needles through their ranks, but there were too many of them to kill. Far too many. And the noise they made when the guns fired dissuaded the men quickly, for in the still night the noise was so overpowering as to rend our eardrums. 

I must say I do not remember the night well, other than Cillit’s drawings. 

By morning the men knew what I had figured out at the beginning of the night, for in the light of the silver moons, while the birds had been waiting, they had been growing. Changing. Adapting. In Darwin’s Galapagos, on Earth, it took thousands and thousands of years for creatures to evolve enough to gain an advantage in their environment. Here, on the planet the Albatross’ crew named Evolution, it only takes a few days. 

It is day now, and I am so tired I can hardly hold my head up straight. Craton and the crew work diligently on the Beagle, racing against time. All of the crew are helping, but for me. I have no mechanical inclination, and Harris wants me writing. He will not say, but it is in case Craton and his crew fail, and we have to spend another night here—he wants a record of our demise. 

We know what the night will bring. In the first moonlight of the night before, I saw the beginnings of wings, the same stubby little things breaking through the skin that Cillit had drawn, over and over and over, but larger each time. I suppose in the hundred years between our ships’ visitations the birds had lost the need for them, and the wings had retreated as quickly as they had grown, but now, here, was another need for them, and they came back as swiftly as a single breath of life in the long history of time. By morning, the wings had stretched to a foot long. I do not know the proper equations, weight versus wing span, et cetera, but I have no doubt that by darkfall the wings will be fully grown, and the birds will ascend the cliffs. I watch the activity around the ship, I hear Craton screaming orders. I watch the shadows gather. 

I think of flying, and I hope.  

About the Author

Paul Crenshaw's essay collection This One Will Hurt You was published by The Ohio State University Press and his second collection of essays, This We’ll Defend, is from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, and his fantasy/sci-fi stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Apex Magazine, Interzone, Tales of Terror, and Kaleidotrope.

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